There is no such thing as “hurricane-proof” design because experience has shown that the things we have not yet seen are greater than what we have seen, but there are ways to build that dramatically improve our prospects. Originally, before there were hurricane experts, if someone was lucky enough to survive a hurricane but their house was not, when they crawled out of its wreckage and saw a neighbor’s house still standing, they said “I’m going to rebuild like that.” Europeans brought European ways of building to the Americas, but it didn’t take too many decades of acquiring the hard-won wisdom of survival to adapt their buildings to a region frequented by heat, humidity, and hurricanes. Today, it seems that the engineers have relieved us of the burden of building wisely, because with enough concrete and steel, a building can survive a storm of shocking strength… but who wants to live in a bunker?
Today’s hurricane experts can explain why lovable Caribbean Rim Architecture is so durable in a storm. And in every pattern of that resistance, we can see that it’s done more with wisdom than with brute structural force. Let’s look at some of those patterns:
Build hip roofs on all but the smallest or strongest buildings to be wind-strong so each side supports its neighbors.
Triangles are keys to structural strength because a three-sided shape is not easily broken. The short sides of hip roofs are usually perfect triangles, and in any case, each side of a hip roof leans back against and supports the neighboring sides of the roof. Because of this, you might call the hip a “good-neighbor roof.”
The smallest of roofs don’t need to be hipped because their roof areas are so small that they are naturally strong. And the heaviest of buildings are built so strong that their roofs need not be hipped either, but if you look around the tropics, you’ll see that the majority of the middle-size roofs tend to be hipped.
Pitch wind-strong roofs 8/12 to 9/12 because this is steep enough to resist uplift but shallow enough to resist overturning.
Flat and low-slope roofs normally fail in high winds due to a force known as “uplift.” Simply put, the wind sucks the roof up off the building. A really steep roof, on the other hand, is so tall that the horizontal force of the wind simply turns the roof (and the building, if it’s well-attached) over on its side. There is one common exception to this rule of thumb: buildings with half-stories built into the roof can be steeper, up to 12/12, because the interior walls that are normally built in such a half-story reinforce the roof, as do the dormer walls built to bring light and air into the upper rooms.
Overhang wind-strong eaves less than you would inland eaves so there’s less for hurricane winds to grab.
Most structural collapses in a hurricane begin at the roof, I’m told. If the winds take hold of the eaves and begin to peel them back, the roof decking can be lost quickly. That roof decking acts with the rafters as a giant beam, supporting the top of the wall. With the decking gone, the top-story walls succumb quickly to the winds and complete structural collapse often follows. This is why shorter overhangs are so common in the tropics. Open rafter tails like these are OK, so long as they’re unusually short (as these are) and even closed classical eaves should overhang less than they would far from the coast.
When long eaves are necessary in the tropics, design them to blow off, leaving the main roof intact.
The largest sacrificial eaves are porch roofs like this one, because even if the porch is entirely destroyed, the main building can remain intact so long as the roof decking is not continuous from the sacrificial eave to the main roof. The more common sacrificial eaves of the Caribbean Rim, however, are those that project out two to four feet from the face of the building and that are supported by brackets designed to let the roof go when the storm gets too strong for the brackets to hold it secure.
Long eaves on wind-strong buildings can be supported by heavy brackets.
There’s another option to designing long eaves to be sacrificial: they can also be supported by ultra-strong brackets such as the ones shown here. Heavy brackets work best when they support a heavy cross-beam that in turn supports the rafters, like the one shown here. Because spans are short and most of the structural stresses are pure tension or compression, square sections often work best for components of the brackets. Again, this building is an ideal example.
Properly-attached metal roofing is the best material for a hurricane zone.
Metal roofing does other good things as well, including being the most frugal roofing you can use in places where the summers get hot, but for now, let’s talk about its windstorm benefits. For decades, people thought that clay tile roofs were the most desirable in a storm, but quite the opposite is true. When a clay tile roof begins to fail, each clay tile becomes a potential missle hurled at over 100 miles per hour at its neighbors. But if you attach a metal roof properly, it endures a storm like no other.
Shutter windows in some way so that most if not all of the opening is protected with wood.
This window has a screened opening closed by strong hardwood shutters, and the small transom panes above are strong enough to endure substantial impacts. But windows in most places don’t meet either criteria, so they should be shuttered before a storm. We have worked for years with Schooner Bay in the Bahamas, which endured the worst of Hurricane Irene, yet sustained essentially no damage. As a matter of fact, not a single pane of glass was broken. This is because windows were protected with shutters which were shut in advance of the storm, and the shutters, not the glass, endured the impacts of wind-borne debris.
Choose carefully between wood walls and masonry walls in a hurricane zone; each has its strengths.
Choosing concrete over wood seems like a no-brainer in a hurricane zone, but this isn’t necessarily true. Look around the Caribbean Rim. What you’ll see is a gumbo of architecture that is part masonry, part wood. The wealthiest citizens often built of masonry, but most buildings in town were wood-framed, or some combination of wood and masonry. This is because most people couldn’t afford a full masonry house. But because everyone wanted their home to survive the storm, measures evolved to allow both wood and masonry buildings to weather the storm. But things change. Today, we build the strongest buildings of reinforced concrete… but while it’s amazingly strong, reinforced concrete is not so durable in salty air, as the reinforcing bars rust and the concrete spalls away. Here’s a highway bridge that’s less than ten years old, yet it has already been condemned due to failure of the reinforced concrete in salt spray.
Build above the floods in a hurricane zone so the storm surge does little or no damage.
Originally, people had no idea how high the floods would surge in a storm, so they either built tropical buildings several feet above the ground or they built the first floor so it could flood, dry out, and be OK. Science has given us a better idea what is most likely to flood today, allowing governing bodies to establish flood elevations above which habitable buildings must be built. So because of science and modern record-keeping, this building can sit with its main floor only three feet above grade, but that's still two feet higher than the highest storm surge ever recorded in this place.
If piers are masonry build them thick, or if wood, drive them deep so that they resist storm surges.
This is a field of piers driven deep into the earth for building foundations. Each can take quite a lick from water-borne debris in a storm surge, because wood resists bending really well, especially when you’re trying to bend a short, thick section like the tops of these piers. And the wood species here is Cabbage Bark, one of the hardest woods on the planet. Masonry is different. It’s strong against vertical loads, but very weak in bending, so if you’re building with masonry foundations, they need to be unusually thick in order to resist the impacts during a storm surge.
Express the base of a masonry wall differently from the rest so it can be refinished more frequently.
See the break in the wall a foot or so above the ground in this image? It’s not there just for style. Instead, it’s a common feature that occurs on masonry walls because the bottom of the wall takes more abuse than higher on the wall. Think everything from lawnmowers to kids kicking balls. If you have to refinish the entire wall every time the base gets scuffed up, that gets really expensive, so masonry buildings have traditionally been built with a base anywhere between one and six feet tall that can be refinished on a different schedule than the rest of the wall.
Most of these images are sourced from our work at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize, which is doing beautiful wood work, as you can see. The Brackets image is from Rosemary Beach, whereas the Wall Base image is from Alys Beach, two places that are building unusually good masonry buildings today in the tropics.
Every neighborhood should provide at least a few quirky unit types because if everything is just “bread-and-butter” homes, the place quickly gets boring. And if the place is a vacation destination, it’s even more important to have a lot of rentable places that are decidedly not like home. We’ve gone over the top at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize, where every unit is strikingly unlike everyday houses. I’m starting with one I call the “Dream Suite” because the design came to me in a dream one night. Here are some of the cool things it does:
Provide a desk, and you’re renting a hotel room. Build shelves, and people can set up and work for weeks.
This seems like an unimportant distinction, but it’s huge. Unless you travel extremely light, a small desktop leaves you working mostly out of your gear bag because everything doesn’t fit on the desk. But it’s deeper than just fitting stuff on a desk, I believe.
The act of setting up and working is an act of inhabitation, and is a big part of the transformation of a cottage from just a vacation place to a home away from home. I travel a lot, working many nights (or early mornings) each year in hotel rooms, and during the three days last spring that I was processing photos from this shoot, it felt remarkably different from a hotel. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realized that it’s the shelves that pull it off because they let me fully set up my workspace. As a result, I can easily imagine coming to Mahogany Bay Village and working several weeks finishing a book or some other project. There’s no way I could imagine doing that in a hotel room somewhere.
Build tropical buildings that know where in the world they are - a hot and humid place with salty air.
Salty air might feel good if you’ve been cooped up in a cubicle too long, but things like light fixtures don’t appreciate it as much as you do, so vaporproof fixtures like this one aren’t just about nautical style… they last longer as well. And drywall in a coastal area is a horrible idea because the air is always moist, and drywall is usually the first thing to grow mold or mildew. Because of this, there’s not one stitch of drywall at Mahogany Bay Village.
They call it “drywall” because you only have a wall so long as you keep it dry. Let it get wet, and it turns to mush.
Mold and mildew isn’t the only threat to coastal buildings. It’s such a pleasure to get to the beach and throw all the windows open, but if a summer shower blows some rain in a window, most laminated and fabricated components of modern construction are in danger of failing… and none so quickly as drywall. Because windows left open during an afternoon thunderstorm can cause so much damage, most people keep them closed and crank up the air conditioner. But then, are you sure you’re even on vacation?
Walls like this are left open from one side, closed on the other with simple wood boards, and filled with shelves for storing your stuff in what would otherwise have been a dark and useless wall cavity. But it’s not just useful. We can all agree it’s more charming than a blank piece of drywall, can’t we?
Dare to ask this question: do we really need insulation in warm coastal places?
This is what you see when you look upwards in the Dream Suite: mahogany rafters and joists and the underside of the roof decking. There is nothing between the roof decking and the metal roofing except a layer of roofing felt.
When I was there for three days, it got up as hot as 98° outside, but I never cut on the air conditioner. How is this possible? The metal roofing reflects about 90% of the sun’s heat back up to the sky before it ever gets into the roof. So there’s never that much difference between the outside temperature and a comfortable indoor temperature. I opened the windows at night and up until mid-morning, then closed them to preserve the cool morning air and cut on the ceiling fans through the heat of the day. Insulation in moist air acts like a huge moldy sponge, soaking up the moisture. Why have it if you don’t need it?
If you haven’t showered in a tropical breeze, you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures.
I have for years been an advocate for windows in showers for their natural light, but I’ve never designed one like this. This louvered window in the Dream Suite’s shower can be opened while you’re showering if you like. And you will like. Adjust the louvers for privacy, of course… but the sensation of a tropical breeze across wet skin is simply delicious.
These louvered windows are built of local mahogany (more on that in a minute) so they are completely unaffected by water from the shower. After all, they weather many storms from the outside; why not a bit of spray from the inside? People sometimes object to windows in showers, but even if the window isn’t mahogany, a properly painted window will not be harmed, especially if it’s covered with a translucent shower curtain for privacy.
Ceiling fans make you feel 10° cooler, so use them in every room where you spend much time in a warm climate.
Think about that for a minute… a ceiling fan blowing 85° air across your body leaves you feeling just as comfortable as sitting in dead air that’s 75°. And the cost of moving that air with a ceiling fan is a small fraction of the cost of cooling that air from 85° to 75° with an air conditioner. Ceiling fans should really be considered essential equipment for every room in which you spend significant time.
Research local craft skills and local materials. You never know what treasures you might find.
Mahogany Bay’s Town Founder did, and she discovered two important things: First, Belize is a big producer of sustainably harvested mahogany. There’s an amazing number of variety of the species there, because that’s its native territory. And there’s also a woodworking craft community there that can produce pretty much anything you want. Their core group is a community of Mennonites that moved down from Canada a century ago, and take both their stewardship of the forests they farm for wood very seriously, and also the maintenance of their craft.
Because these assets were already in place, it was possible to fine-tune them to produce the work you see here. And while this may look like some really high-end construction, it’s amazingly affordable because it’s based on resources and base skill sets that already existed.
I’ll be mixing posts on building types over the next several weeks. Some will be exotic types from Mahogany Bay Village, while the others will be main-ingredient types for traditional neighborhoods in the US. Are there any specific types you’re interested in seeing? Let me know, and I’ll post those first if I have them… thanks!
PS: This post is part of a large series I’m doing on various building types. Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, the Carriage House, and the Sideyard. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, this is the first of several posts I’ll be doing about some types we’re developing as well, beginning at Mahogany Bay Village. And here are more pictures of the Dream Suite.
The Rum & Bean is doing what all the experts consider impossible: it’s a business in a new neighborhood that hasn’t yet closed on a single house, yet it’s already turning a positive cash flow. Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize does plan to close on several dozen units we’ve designed before the end of the year, but as of now, there are exactly zero residents. Meanwhile, the experts say you need a thousand homes to justify just a simple corner store. How is the Rum & Bean even possible?
A Single-Crew Workplace is the closest thing there is to a silver bullet for business.
This is a workplace that can be run by one crew. In the case of the Rum & Bean, which serves coffee (the bean part) by day and rum by night, that crew is just one person. In the case of a restaurant, it’s one person to cook and a second person to serve. A workplace with only a single crew can be incredibly small… the Rum & Bean is 14 feet by 24 feet, or 336 square feet. This reduces the overhead to unthinkably low levels, and makes all sorts of things possible that would be impossible for businesses burdened with all the normal assumptions.
Want to be Lean? Do business with a single crew.
Some really smart people are working right now on an initiative known as Lean Urbanism. I’d suggest that a Single-Crew Workplace is about as lean as you can get. Here’s my take on what Lean means. I believe that Lean is the new green.
Single-Crew Workplaces are predisposed to be the coolest places in town.
This is because of the Teddy Bear Principle, which basically states that the smaller something gets, the more charming and lovable it becomes. Test it this way: ask your friends what’s the coolest shop in town. Most likely, it’ll be quite narrow. It is never, ever, ever the 400-foot-wide WalMart. And it’s this inherent charm that has helped the Rum & Bean attract customers from the surrounding town and neighborhoods. It’s simply the coolest place around, and so people come and hang out all day.
You can jump-start neighborhood centers years before it’s thought possible with Single-Crew Workplaces.
The Rum & Bean actually does two things heretofore thought to be impossible. I mentioned turning a positive cash flow with zero residents. But there’s something else: it, and the sales office next door, both live/work units, were the first two buildings we built at Mahogany Bay. Have you ever heard of a new neighborhood in a fairly remote place leading with two live/work units? That’s just unthinkable. Most neighborhoods wait years for basic services. But that’s what happened, thanks to the Lean silver bullet that is the Single-Crew Workplace.
Want to know more? Leave a comment, and let’s discuss.
PS: Here are more pictures of the Rum & Bean.
The house type in this installment of our building types catalog is one of the most useful, and traces its American origins back to Charleston, where they still call it the “single house.” There, it’s one room wide so it ventilates easily, and opens across a broad verandah into the side garden. The classic Charleston sideyard garden pictured above sits beside a mansion, but sideyard dwellings can be as small as cottages, or anywhere in between.
The sideyard didn’t spread very much for a couple centuries, staying in its native Carolina lowcountry until DPZ took it to Seaside in the 1980s. There, people from all over were able to see it and appraise its virtues: its long East-West shape captures Southeast summer breezes on its verandahs, while the solid North face shields the garden from cold winter winds. Its Eastern and Western walls are shortest, which is great when the hot summer sun hangs low in the Western sky, or even on a scorching summer morning. And the gardens… whether a wide garden like the one above, or a string of cozier garden rooms, the greenery beckoning you outdoors is one of the highlights of any sideyard dwelling.
And so people all over the Southeast began taking the sideyard home with them, calling for the planners to design them into new neighborhoods. Recently, people in more distant regions as far away as the Great Lakes have realized that the virtues of the sideyard serve them well, too. And so the sideyard has become a favorite building type all the way to the foothills of the Rockies.
Read Outdoor Room Secrets. The basics of garden room design can all be found there.
Gardens should take hints from their houses so windows can gracefully connect outdoors and in.
If an outdoor room ends where an indoor room ends, then windows or doors that are well-composed in the indoor room are usually well-placed in the outdoor room as well. If the design doesn’t fall in place so easily, just remember that outdoor room walls are often made of things like hedges. This allows you to make a wall on one end of a garden room several feet thick if that’s what it takes to make the design work cleanly.
Beware bands of shadow. Even on hot days, it’s the sparkle of sunlight that entices us outdoors.
Yes, you usually sit in the shade when it’s warm, but people don’t go outdoors nearly so often if they have to cross a wide band of shadow to get there. That’s why the best place for a door to a garden room is on the South wall of a house.
Outdoor rooms are more delightful and more useful than lawns. Grass isn’t really so green.
A lawn full of grass is a poor substitute for a landscape filled with garden rooms. A Breakfast Terrace, Hearth Garden, Sport Court, Dinner Garden, Kitchen Garden, Coffee Terrace, Pool Court, Meditation Garden, and Secret Garden can form a delightful necklace of living spaces around a home where you can eat, entertain, play, contemplate, relax, and love, whereas most of your time spent with grass is sweating to mow it, poison it, and spray it with various other chemicals. Don’t do that. Spend your time outdoors enjoying your garden rooms instead.
Enclose your garden rooms enough that you’ll feel comfortable spending time there.
Outdoor places without enough enclosure to make you feel comfortable when you’re sitting there aren’t garden rooms at all; they’re just yards. They can still be beautifully landscaped, but you’ll enjoy that landscaping only for the few seconds that you’re passing by, not for hours at a time. The space in front of your house likely will never be anything more than a front yard because, without a garden wall at the sidewalk, it’s just too public a place for you to feel comfortable sitting there. But for every other part of your lot, don’t limit yourself to enjoying it just a few moments at a time: get enough privacy to spend quality time there.
North Side Manners
Don’t peer into your neighbor’s garden; let them be private there. Keep side windows to the South.
“North Side Manners” is an ancient Charleston term. It means “if you have any manners, you don’t look out the North side of your house into your neighbor’s side garden.” There is one exception: it’s important to have a window somewhere near the front of each side wall. It makes the street much friendlier because you’re looking at windows instead of blank side walls as you’re walking down the sidewalk. Imagine how much friendlier these houses would look with those windows. And those side windows let light in from a second direction, making everything in the room more beautiful. But if you want windows anywhere else in the North wall of a sideyard house, make sure the window is either a small square window set high in the wall, or glazed with obscure glass that lets in light but not a view.
Flank as much of the garden wall of your house as possible with a porch or verandah.
The gardens of a sideyard dwelling should lie generally to the South. The porch or verandah roof does several good things on the South side of a dwelling. The summer sun is high in the sky at mid-day, leaving the porch mostly in shade, with only a narrow band of sunlight at the edge to entice you outdoors. But during the wintertime the sun hangs low, penetrating deep under the porch roof and through the windows, warming the interior of your home.
Lay out sideyard lots so neighbors can use the Northernmost edge of the neighboring lot as part of their garden.
If you’re a homeowner, look for neighborhoods laid out this way; if you’re a planner, make sure to include a sideyard easement in your plan. Technically, a sideyard dwelling should be built right on the property line, but this causes building code issues with the building inspector. You’ll have to fire-rate the North wall of your house, driving the price up. But if every house sets back 5’ from the property line, there is no fire rating requirement. Just make sure to put an easement on that 5’ setback so the neighbor to the North can use it as part of their garden. Everyone gives up their Northernmost 5’, but gets 5’ back from their neighbor to the South. Is that clear, or do I need to explain it better?
Side yards are the perfect place for an edible garden. But be sure to make them lovable, too.
There are still some towns or neighborhoods that don’t allow vegetable gardens in visible locations, like a front yard. This is in large part because most people haven’t yet learned how to design a lovable edible garden. So don’t make your neighbors nervous; practice your craft of lovable edible gardening in your side gardens first, until you get really good. Then invite them over for dinner, and when they see how beautiful your edible gardens are, they’ll probably ask you to do the same thing in your front yard as well!
PS: Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, and the Carriage House. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, I’m blogging about some types we’re developing as well, including the Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village.
Probably the best thing I saw at CNU this year (out of many great things) happened after the Congress was over. Sunday night, I was treated to a fascinating night tour of Buffalo by Tim Tielman and friends, and the highlight was the last stop. Mayfair Lane is a type of place I’ve never seen before; a highly inventive place type invented in the 1920s by architect E. B. Green that inexplicably did not spread. But maybe it still can; it certainly should.
As you’ll remember, I’ve started a catalog of building types, having already posted the Edge Yard Dwellings, the Rear Lane Cottage, and the Carriage House. This will be the first of the special types I’ve found just in one place, but that merit use in other places. I’m really excited to be going to Boston later this summer to speak at the Traditional Building Conference, where I’ll be able to photograph the Beacon Hill Court, a type I’ve loved for years, but found only in Boston.
Here’s Mayfair Lane in a bird’s-eye view. It’s a simple idea, really. The vehicular lane is at ground level, and a pedestrian lane is built above. You pull in and park under your unit. Guests parking on the street walk up two stairways either side of the vehicular entry to the pedestrian lane. The whole thing sits on a lot that is 100’ wide and 300’ deep, not counting E. B. Green’s house at the end.
Each unit sits on a footprint that is roughly 900 square feet, so they are really compact. If I’m reading the bird’s-eye correctly, there are about 28 units on Mayfair Lane. Not counting E. B. Green’s house, the entire property on which Mayfair Lane sits is just under ⅔ of an acre, making the density just over 42 units per acre. And the assessed value of all of the units works out to a stunning $12.5 million per acre, I’m told… by far the most valuable real estate in the entire city of Buffalo.
The cool thing is that the Mayfair Lane place type could be used pretty much anywhere. When I showed the photos to Lizz Plater-Zyberk yesterday, she said Liz Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides have done similar things in California, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Isn’t it about time someone takes E. B. Green’s great idea on the road after all these years?
PS: Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, the Carriage House, and the Sideyard. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them… this is the first of those posts. Finally, I’m blogging about some types we’re developing as well, including the Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village.
Sometimes, the worlds of poetry and efficiency collide in a really good way… such is the case when you build a village of white houses in the tropics.
Poetic things are usually considered nearly opposite to efficient things, as different from one another as an artist is from an engineer. But Leonardo da Vinci was both… and a white house in a tropical climate can be both poetic and efficient as well.
There are no silver bullets to sustainability, but one thing comes close: a light-colored roof. If all the dark roofs in parts of the world where people use air conditioners were simply painted white, unimaginable energy would be saved.
You could literally power several small nations with the savings. So building a tropical village of white houses is a highly efficient thing because all those light roofs and walls reflect most of the sun’s heat before it ever reaches the interiors of the buildings.
A village of white houses can be a highly poetic place, as you can see from these images of Mahogany Bay Village, which is now being built on Belize’s Ambergris Caye. Some of that poetry is harbored in the past, nestling in our romantic images of the ancient tropical escapes of our childhood books and dreams. But more of it is firmly ensconced in the present moment, as the village cloaks itself over and over with the ever-changing light of the day.
You can see snapshots of that fleeting attire in the images of this post, taken in moments over just a three-day span recently.
PS: Here are more pictures of Mahogany Bay Village.
There’s a way of building we call the “Timber Tent” that we hope might change construction in tropical and sub-tropical climates. While the term is new, some of the techniques are quite old, dating back past the beginning of the Thermostat Age… they’ve just been forgotten in the rush to build drywall-slathered boxes everywhere around the world, irrespective of regional conditions, climate, or culture. We’ve just returned from Mahogany Bay Village, just a stone’s throw from the shores of Ambergris Caye in Belize with lots of great images of the SmartDwellings now being completed there. But before getting into all the details, let’s have a look at the Timber Tent principles behind it all.
Tropical design is hard to understand for most American architects who have been trained to think of the exterior wall as a barrier between exterior and interior conditions, and where most systems are designed to slow the flow of outside conditions to the inside so the equipment can keep us comfortable indoors. Northern buildings might be surrounded by air that is seventy degrees colder (or more) than indoor air, which gets very dry in winter. Tropical air is hardly ever more than twenty degrees warmer than our comfort range, but it’s usually loaded with humidity.
Buildings in or near the tropics therefore need to open up and breathe. The prime function of the tropical building envelope isn’t to isolate conditions inside from conditions outside, but rather to channel conditions in order to make it most comfortable inside. In short, it’s a completely different way of thinking about the building envelope, and designing this way creates buildings built more like a durable tent than a multi-layered box.
Tents are pitched with thin panels stretched across a rigid frame. Tents can open up in several ways. Their sidewalls can be rolled up to let the breeze blow through, or dropped to conserve heat on a cool evening. Tent flaps can open in isolated places to catch breezes or views. We do similar things with the Timber Tent. We first build a post-and-beam structure for much of the building, then we fill in between the posts, largely with louvers, doors, windows, and shutters that allow us to either steer or exclude the flow of breezes to create the greatest comfort. Louvers can be operable or fixed as needed. Doors can be swinging or rolling. Windows that aren’t louvered can be swinging or double-hung, and shutters can be side-hinged, top-hinged, or rolling. In short, there are lots of options.
I spent three nights last week in the “Dream Suite” at Mahogany Bay Village. I call it this because the design of the suite came to me in a dream one night several years ago… the only time that has ever happened to me in my career. But regardless of its origins, it was my chance to see firsthand whether our ideas actually work at Mahogany Bay.
The short answer is a resounding “yes”. I slept with all the louvers open, and drifted off to sleep with the soft windsong moaning through the louvers. Between photo shoots, I worked furiously in the Dream Suite to get as many photos processed as I possibly could. The first day featured a blazing sun in a glorious clear blue sky, but the sea breeze kept me deliciously cool all day, sheltered under the reflective metal roof that bounced most of the sun’s heat back up into the sky without ever getting inside the cottage. And the heat that did get in was free to rise into the rafters, several feet above my head.
The breeze died down on the last day, and the heat rose into the upper nineties by noontime. While I spend a lot of time outdoors when I’m home and am therefore comfortable in the shade on many subtropical days, the upper nineties are simply too hot for me. But no problem… when I felt the warmth rising beyond my comfort range, I merely closed the louvered windows and cut on the ceiling fan. And because a ceiling fan’s breeze lets you feel comfortable ten degrees warmer than in still air, I felt great all through that sweltering afternoon. And while every unit in Mahogany Bay Village has a small air conditioner, I never needed to cut it on during my entire time in the Dream Suite.
Lots more to come over the next several weeks… what would you like to talk about next?
Snippets to Share
Ceiling fans keep you comfortable ten degrees warmer than still air and are 1/40 the cost of running central air.
Few things are as pleasant as falling asleep to wind song, which only happens if your house can breathe.
Drywall is just wrong in the tropics, where air is moisture-laden. With drywall, not dry = no wall.
I worked for years to persuade a developer to build standalone carriage houses in a place where I served as town planner and town architect. When he finally built a few, they quickly became the fastest-selling homes in the neighborhood… they were so hot, in fact, that I had to draw more carriage house lots into the neighborhood plan!
A carriage house is like the Rear Lane Cottage: built not on the street, but on the rear lane. It has a garage on the first level and living quarters above. The carriage house pictured above might sit on the same lot with the larger house you see in the background, or it might be sitting on its own piece of property… you can’t tell for sure. In this case, the only clue is the paint color, which makes it a safe bet that both are on the same lot. But sometimes, they can sit entirely on their own with no house nearby, like this larger carriage house:
The smallest models sit on a 20 foot x 20 foot lot, while the one above sits on a lot that’s more like 30 feet by 40 feet… so they aren’t all just alike. But in any case, the charm of living over the garage on a back lane of a cool neighborhood makes the carriage house one of the best-selling home types you’ve never built yet… but should.
PS: Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, and the Sideyard. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, I’m blogging about some types we’re developing as well, including the Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village.
Some of the most charming homes in Key West are the tiny cottages that you only find if you venture off the streets and onto the rear lanes that make their ways through the middles of the blocks. While Key West is famous for them, you’ll find rear lane cottages if you look long enough in most of the historic parts of town in America.
Rear lane cottages are a great way of getting a big range of affordability in a small area, because they usually sit back-to-back with much larger homes that front the streets that surround them. Sometimes, they sit on the same lot with the bigger house, and were originally built as maybe a guest suite or possibly a granny cottage. Other times, they have been carved off onto their own tiny lots that can be bought free and clear. Think of a rear lane cottage as a place your son or daughter can afford to buy in your neighborhood when they graduate from college.
PS: Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Carriage House, and the Sideyard. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, I’m blogging about some types we’re developing as well, including the Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village.
Great cities are built mostly of big boxes… it’s not the size of the box that matters, but rather how it behaves on the street. One of the obstacles New Urbanists face is the accusation that “You’re really good at creating cute little boutique places with ice cream parlors and coffee shops, but you can’t design buildings for real American uses like WalMart, Home Depot, car dealers and drive-through restaurants and banks.” It is true that some New Urbanists are vigorously opposed to these uses, and it’s also true that nearly every New Urbanist is against pervasive implementation of these uses in their current forms because those current forms are only useful in auto-dominated districts, not in places people walk. So the accusation has a ring of truth… but let’s dig deeper, where we’ll find that it’s actually not true at all.
What you’re about to see is how to do exactly what the sprawl-promoting nay-sayers say cannot be done: fit those common uses into a traditional block structure in appropriate Transect zones. This might seem at first glance like we’re just decorating the big box, but we’re actually doing is civilizing the big box… a crucial difference. Here are the essential questions of the civilizing process:
• How do you park it with nothing more than diagonal parking on the street that is visible from the street? In other words, how do you eliminate the parking lot in front? Or on the side but still visible?
• How do you fit it into the normal block structure of the place where it is being built? Until the block structure is maintained rigorously correct, you’ve created nothing more than another sprawl project, not a part of the fabric of the town.
• After that, how do you get the massing and rhythm of the architecture right? This still has nothing to do with style. It should be obvious that a blank concrete box inserted into a town center is still destructive. Bays consistent with those of the town should be articulated, and appropriate shopfront glazing at the first level should be provided.
Only after these things have been accomplished is it proper to even think about the style of the building. And the style obviously should be something that communicates with and resonates with the average citizen of the place it is built.
At this point, it’s fair to ask: “How is this any better than a lifestyle center?” Anyone who has offered more than a passing glance at "lifestyle centers" knows that while they may spend excruciating amounts of effort (and money) getting massing, rhythm, and style right, they fail miserably with the first two priorities. Matter of fact, they ignore them entirely. Their block structure usually has nothing to do with (and no connection to) the block structure of the town, and they continue to have massive parking in front, just like suburban malls.
They may say “But wait, that’s really the back! The Main Street we’ve created is the front; the parking is in back.” That illusion may hold when you’re walking down the Main Street, but the truth of the matter is that the front of a place is what you see when you arrive, not what you see when you get into the innards of the project. So the parking lots are without question the front of the project.
So if decorating the big box is not the answer and the Lifestyle Center is not the answer, then what is the answer? There are several, actually. The answers vary by Transect zone and by use. Please note that there are no superficial solutions here, like trying to come up with a model for a rural (Transect zone T-2) big box. Simply put, there should be no big boxes in the countryside, or in suburban neighborhoods (T-3), for that matter. Tools are only shown for the zones where they should occur. All tools are based on appropriate mixed-use parking ratios as per the SmartCode.
T-6 Downtown Streets
Transect experts know zone T-6 as the "Urban Core," but you might know it better as simply “downtown.” It’s the most intense part of cities, and doesn’t normally occur in towns, rarely in villages, and never in hamlets. Downtown usually extends several blocks in each direction.
Downtown Big Box
This building type should not need an illustration because it is so familiar. This is the downtown department store that has been built for over a century in cities across America. Some downtowns don’t require much parking because of transit, but when one does, it is provided in structured parking in the basement. Floors are stacked up as high as necessary at roughly 90,000 square feet per floor (because the building occupies the entire block) to achieve the desired floor area. Other uses, including residential, typically occupy higher floors.
Downtown Auto Dealership
Downtown real estate is often too expensive for a typical auto dealership that requires a sea of parking on-site. Nonetheless, dealerships may still occur there. At a minimum, the dealership occupies a first level showroom with all other functions handled off-site. Look carefully: Dealerships occupy small urban center showrooms like this in the most cities in the world.
Where real estate values (and construction costs) allow, car storage and service functions can be accommodated in the basement parking structure. In such cases, cars are usually brought up for a test drive by employees, although it is technically possible for the salesperson and the customer to walk through the parking deck looking for a car. It is also possible to handle all other functions on-site if real estate values are low enough to allow on-site car storage. The physical form of the building in such cases may be virtually identical to that of the downtown big box: a large full-block building mass with showrooms on the street level, offices above, and parking garage in the basement. As before, other uses may occupy higher floors.
Downtown Building Supply Stores
Downtown real estate is almost always too expensive for a building supply store. The required lumber yards simply do not generate enough revenue to justify the real estate cost. Because the real estate prices require buildings to occupy the entire site except for very special functions, the Garden Center would have to be placed on the roof of the building, which is usually not feasible. It is true that some hardware stores or other building supply specialties such as plumbing or lighting showrooms certainly do occupy street-level retail spaces in downtown mixed-use buildings, but the building supply superstores such as Home Depot simply cannot afford to locate downtown in their common form.
T-5 Main Streets
Transect zone T-5 is termed “Urban Center” by Transect aficianados, but in the US, T-5 is essentially Main Street. T-5 zones sometimes extend several blocks in each direction, but they may also be one block wide and several blocks long along a Main Street. Two illustrations are given here where appropriate: one for the full block and the other for the half-block with primarily residential uses occupying the other half. I’ve used blocks that are 400’ from center of thoroughfare to center of thoroughfare for all of the diagrams in this post because this is a very common size of block for town center areas in much of the eastern United States.
Main Street Big Box
This type is one of the most important types to solve. There is obviously a range of box sizes to be solved, from the 40,000 square foot grocery store to the 180,000 square foot super center. Both extremes are illustrated, along with two intermediate conditions.
40,000 Square Foot Grocery
This box can be solved on a half-block with all surface parking, and therefore works along Main Streets that are one block deep from alley to alley with townhouses behind fronting the outer streets. Loft apartments are assumed above the grocery. This illustration includes 104 parking spaces on the street, 48 spaces on the alley and 28 garage spaces in the townhouses behind. In addition to the 40,000 square foot grocery store, 14 townhouse units are shown and 40 loft apartment units are located above the grocery.
80,000 Square Foot Mini-Anchor
This is pretty much the largest box that can be solved on a half-block with all surface parking, although it does require pairing with another block of liner buildings and internal parking to do so. It therefore works along Main Streets that are one block deep from alley to alley with townhouses behind fronting the outer streets. The mini-anchor building is two floors tall, but the first level is double-height and is detailed on the exterior as two levels. There are two levels of loft apartments above the retail liners.
150,000 Square Foot Building Supply
The building supply box requires two levels of an entire block, and must be paired with another block of structured parking bounded by liner buildings. The big box is assumed to have high ceilings on at least the street level because of the clear span size, and to be expressed as a three- or four-level building on the exterior as a result. Liner buildings are assumed to be oriented away from the Main Street, and are therefore offices on the first level and lofts on the second and third. Please note that some functions of the building supply that require cashiers at all times for security or other reasons (such as the garden center, which is shown here as an interior courtyard) could be expressed as separate storefronts on the exterior of the box. This and the 180,000 square foot super center that follows are the only two types that require structured parking, which is a four-level deck in both cases. Clearly, decks cost more than surface parking if land cost is not considered. This is one of the few solutions presented that costs more than the conventional suburban model. Several of the other solutions I’ve illustrated actually save large amounts of money.
180,000 Square Foot Super Center
The super center box requires two levels of an entire block, and must be paired with another block of structured parking bounded by liner buildings. The big box is assumed to have high ceilings on at least the street level because of the clear span size, and to be expressed as a three- or four-level building on the exterior as a result. Liner buildings are assumed to be oriented away from the Main Street, and are therefore offices on the first level and lofts on the second and third. Please note that some functions of the super center that require cashiers at all times for security or other reasons (such as the pharmacy or the jewelry department) could be pulled out into the liner buildings if desired as separate shops.
Main Street Automobile Dealership
The full-featured automobile dealership requires two blocks divided according to the natural divisions of the business. New car sales and general administration occupies one block, while used car sales and service occupy the other. Buildings are essentially all liner buildings, with lofts (or possibly offices) on the upper levels. All office and residential parking requirements are met through the use of on-street parking, reserving the 328 spaces within the two blocks for the dealership’s stock of new and used cars. The auto dealership may also be done in a single block through the use of structured parking.
Typical Main Street Block
This block is patterned closely after commercial buildings used on countless Main Streets across the United States. Diagonal parking rings the block, which is composed of buildings ranging between 20’ and 30’ in width. Building depths are typically 75’ except at each end of the alley, where the end building extends back tight to the alley in order to screen the interior of the block. This liner building is assumed to be office occupancy since it is on the side street rather than the front street. This layout provides a total of 48,000 square feet of retail and 8,400 square feet of offices per block plus 28 loft apartments on the second level. Units may be sold as live/works, where the purchaser buys both the retail unit on the first level and the living unit on the second. Such arrangements allow very inexpensive incubation of a new business. The interior of the block is composed of a two-lane alley flanked by a bay of parking on each side. Enough width is available to insert parallel parking on the alley if desired.
Main Street Drive-Through Retail
Drive-through retail requires automobile stack space. This clearly is a problem if the stacking occurs on a Main Street. Stacking cannot occur between the fronts of buildings and the street without unacceptably serious damage to the integrity of the street. Stacking also is a nuisance if it occurs in an alley, blocking the alley from use by other businesses. A close visual connection between the business and the vehicular entry to the drive-through is very important. The shop fronts of the Main Street should not be punctured by a drive-through exit. Drive-through traffic should exit the site where it enters the site, rather than being routed to another side of the block, so customers are not disoriented. The drive-through scheme should work whether the block is a full block, as in the case of contiguous Main Street blocks in both directions, or whether the block is a half-block, as in the case of a single block of Main Street.
The proposed system includes a central alley with a bay of parking to either side as described above. Drive-through establishments are allowed only on the corners of the block in order to be visually tied to the alley entries that serve them. The drive-through is both entered and exited via the alley entrance adjacent to them. An end bay of roughly 50’ of parking is reserved for the drive-through facility, which is one of three types:
Semi-Detached Multi-Lane (Gas Stations)
Gas stations are a bit of a hybrid between detached and attached drive-throughs. The product is piped to a remote location like a bank, but the point of delivery must have a closer connection to the cashier to avoid fuel thefts. Gas stations also try to make additional sales by bringing people into the convenience store where the cashier works. Gas stations require a somewhat larger end bay on the alley than the other two types. The European pull-by model is an option that allows the gas station to occur on the street. This model only works on side streets, but should be considered as an option.
Remote Multi-Lane (Banks or Pharmacies)
Remote drive-throughs may be used for uses such as banks or pharmacies, where objects may be placed in a capsule and shot out to the drive-through via a tube. New remote drive-through technology allows the drive-throughs to be located several hundred feet from the primary place of business. In this case, the drive-throughs are stacked diagonally beside the alley and exit back out onto the alley. Note that the remote drive-through must be placed on the right side as the customer is exiting the alley. If the bank or pharmacy is located on the left, this will preclude a restaurant occurring on the right because the drive-through for the bank or pharmacy occurs in the slot that would be needed for the restaurant drive-through.. The scheme, then, will accommodate between two and four drive-through businesses per block, depending on type.
Attached Single-Lane (Restaurants)
Attached drive-throughs are required for items such as food that cannot be turned upside down or dramatically accelerated during transit. These must be attached to the primary place of business at a location appropriate for the interior function of the business. Both right-hand and left-hand options are shown, since the building layout changes significantly depending on which orientation is used.
Here’s the other type of restaurant, where traffic circulates in the opposite direction from the option above. This one is for when the restaurant is on your left as you enter the rear lane; with the one above, the restaurant is on your right.
T-4 Neighborhood Streets
Transect zone T-4 is known in Transect circles as “general urban,” but if you think of good in-town neighborhood streets, you get the picture: a mix of single-family detached homes, townhomes, shops, and restaurants, especially at street-corners. Neighborhood streets are easier to deal with in two primary respects: First, the biggest boxes simply are not allowed there. The SmartCode limits retail to one corner building per block, and the parking requirements are higher. Second, because the buildings may be detached, it is possible to bring a driveway out to the front street.
This 20,000 square foot neighborhood grocery store is the most typical general neighborhood retail use. Because only one such retail building is allowed per block and it must be located on a corner, this illustration shows it at the largest possible size, which is a quarter block. Big box retail significantly larger than this simply is not appropriate for neighborhood streets.
Neighborhood Drive-Through Retail
Semi-Detached Multi-Lane (Gas Stations)
Gas stations also occur at neighborhood street corners. James Wassell did a particularly good model for this idea recently. He calls it the Inverted Gas Station. Others call it Gas Backwards, although I’m not sure who to credit for this name. This particular option, by aligning the pumps from front to back, allows a total of 10 pumps within a surprisingly conservative area.
Attached Multi-Lane (Banks & Pharmacies)
Banks and pharmacies typically change to attached drive-throughs on neighborhood streets because there is no imperative for detaching the drive-through function like there is on Main Street. If detailed properly, a four-lane drive-through can look like a large but believable porte cochere by running one lane between the porte cochere and the building, two lanes through the porte cochere and the last lane (which serves the ATM) to the outside.
Attached Single-Lane (Restaurants)
Restaurants remain attached like they are on Main Street. Because retail is required to occur only on neighborhood street corners, drive-throughs either enter on the front street and exit through the alley or vice versa. By running the stacking lane the depth of the lot (including parking in front) 8 or more cars may be stacked without blocking traffic.
This is the other version of the drive-through… where you enter through the rear lane and exit through the front street, as opposed to above, where you do the opposite.
Neighborhood streets should be the most common places for schools. This illustration shows the largest two-story high school that can easily be put on a single block. A high school is illustrated because it is the worst-case scenario on two counts: some of its students drive, and high school athletic field requirements are larger than those of middle schools or elementary schools. The school is assumed to be slid to one edge of the neighborhood. Playing fields occur within adjacent parklands. Two huge auto-related problems of schools are parking spaces and stack space for parents picking up and dropping off their children. When schools are embedded in neighborhoods, students within the pedestrian shed can walk. This illustration assumes an average density of 5 units per acre in the surrounding neighborhood, and assumes that 8% of those households have children of high school age. Of those, half are assumed to be legal drivers. Given these assumptions, and the assumption that the pedestrian shed for children walking to school is the ten-minute walk, there are a total of 250 acres in the half-shed (the other half is park). If 2.9% of the population are high school students of driving age and there are 1.8 children per household that has children, then there could be between 100 and 120 driving-age high school students within the pedestrian shed of the school. If 80% of them walk (once they rediscover that walking to school is a tremendously social thing to do when it’s possible) on any given day, then the student parking lot can be reduced by 80 to 100 spaces. The school parking requirement is therefore reduced to the teachers, staff and a few students.
Stack space for pick-up has an exceptionally simple solution for schools embedded into the fabric of the neighborhood: Cars are allowed to stack on neighborhood streets. Embedded schools actually need no drop-off lane at all in many cases where parents can drop off children on the school lawn and let them walk to the door. Because parents are sitting in the cars waiting to pick up children, anyone blocking a resident’s driveway can easily move because they are already sitting behind the wheel. And because most high schools end at 3 PM, most residents are still at work and should not need to use their driveways at this time of day.
This building is two stories and surrounds a central courtyard with double-loaded classroom wings. A two-story gymnasium and a single-story lunchroom are located to the rear of the building, which also includes the loading dock. The library is located over a portion of the lunchroom. There are a total of 56 classrooms plus administrative offices.
Neighborhood Church Building
Neighborhood streets should also be the most common place for church buildings. Churches vary tremendously in schedules of services and other operational items, and also in the number of worshippers drawn from within walking distance since a church does not usually have the near-monopoly on residents that many public schools do, It is therefore not possible to make as many numerical assumptions as can be done with school buildings. It is clear, however, that church buildings embedded within a neighborhood fabric will draw some worshippers from walking distance. It is also clear that overflow parking can take place on surrounding streets as long as parking is allowed on the streets. Purely for the purpose of illustration, if most worship services occur with only 50% of the seats filled and if 20% of the worshippers walk to services, then the same number of dedicated parking spaces will allow 2.5 times as many seats in the auditorium of church buildings embedded in a walkable neighborhood. This is an amazing number. How else, with less land area (because surrounding streets double as aisles for on-street parking), could any institution get over double the conventional capacity of their building?
Neighborhood Building Supply
A full-scale building supply outlet cannot occur on neighborhood streets due to limitations previously discussed. A hardware store, plumbing supply store, lighting fixture store or other similar establishments, however could easily be a neighborhood corner store.
T-3 Suburban Neighborhood Streets
Suburban streets are limited in the SmartCode to essentially one corner store per neighborhood. One of the great errors of conventional postwar planning is the inclusion of pretty much every function within what should have been Suburban neighborhood areas. By making the suburban zone become everything, it became nothing. Because the Transect can be exceptionally fine-grained, it is certainly possible, and usually desirable, to have areas of neighborhood streets and Main Streets within close proximity to suburban streets, so there is more retail and other uses nearby. But on suburban streets, with the exception of the corner store, there should essentially be none of the typical sprawl commercial uses; they should all occur on nearby Main Streets or neighborhood streets.
I did this piece for the New Urban Retail Council Report a decade ago, and have been getting requests to put it up ever since. I hope you find it useful. Please let me know if I’m missing something you’d like to see addressed. And like everything else on this site, please feel free to share links to this page with anyone who might find it helpful.